The Art Of Richmond’s Youth

by | Jun 6, 2019 | ART

Art 180’s annual Really Big Show will turn art by the river city’s young people into a celebratory block party on First Friday.

Art 180 will be hosting their 15th annual Really Big Show this Friday, June 7th, as part of June’s First Friday festivities. The beloved non-profit will be taking up their entire block in Jackson Ward to display and present a semester’s worth of colorful creative works by Richmond’s youth.

“Having 183 of our program participants come together in one space is pretty exciting,” said Community Program Manager Vaughn Garland. “This is a moment in which we’re not only showcasing our youth’s work, but we’re also pulling people together… We’ll be able to get the youth up onstage in front of a crowd to ask them questions, and have them tell the community about their art, and, oh, they will tell definitely tell you.”

During the event there will be lots of art to see and plenty of activities to enjoy, as well as the staged presentations of each students artwork. There will be displays both inside and outside of the Art 180 building, with more permanent installations housed inside and various student projects outside, coupled with activities centered around those project topics.

“[With] one group, we had worked on weaving with natural materials, so there will be a station set up with something that will give people a chance to experience what that looks like,” said Program Director Taekia Glass.

Each semester, the focus of the classes changes, depending on the artists who are available to teach. As artists come to Art 180 to volunteer their time and serve as program assistants and leaders, they bring with them their own talents and specialties, so during different semesters there may be visual artists, musicians, or performance artists — but there’s always something new for the students to learn about.

For Garland, the volunteers who show up year after year for Art 180’s students demonstrate the best of what Richmond has to offer. “When push comes to shove we as a city always seem to help each other out,” said Garland. “When questioned if something is going to work, the city has a philosophy that, ‘yes, it will always work.’”

This year at the Really Big Show, a class called “Cut, Copy, Paste: Assembling Identity” will be presenting collages and other works that focus on the recognition of self identity through different mediums and experiences. Program Leader Raven Mata and Program Assistant Maurice Singleton created a space at Elkhardt-Thompson Middle School where kids can let their minds run wild and learn to safely express themselves and develop their identities in a creative setting.

For Mata, creating this space was a way to reach out to Richmond youth who might be in the same position she once was herself. “When I was growing up I had problems of not having a lot of people around to help me or my community, and seeing people forget about the kids in my community. When I finally got a chance to go to college, I realized ‘wow, I can be an artist. I didn’t know artists looked like me,’” said Mata. “While you’re out here working on galleries and sets, it’s one thing, but I felt like I needed to do more for my community. I just needed to give it back to the kids around me.”

For Singleton, it was about replicating a mentoring experience he had as a child for the next generation. “When I was a kid my mom put me in the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program,” said Singleton. “It opened my horizons. My ‘Big Brother’ changed my life and I learned a lot from him, so I’d love to do that in return to whoever I meet.”

Aside from the work these artists join with Art 180 to do in the middle and high school setting, they are also involved in teaching at the local juvenile detention centers. Mata and Singleton both have worked with students in these settings and couldn’t be happier that they chose to do this.

“You’re in the detention center with all these ‘grown men’ who are actually young kids, and kids at heart. The kids lose faith — they’re in the system, and they don’t see a way out,” said Singleton. “Being someone who was incarcerated and got back out and had to start over, it was one of those things that stood out. Sitting in a cell thinking, ‘I don’t know what tomorrow will look like,’ and ‘I don’t think I have a future,’ and then to be able to get out of that and come back to show those kids I was in the same situation, got my mind right and got to move past that.”

“The idea that people have of the kids in the detention centers being these bad kids is wrong,” said Mata. “There really isn’t much of a difference, they’re all loud and have something to say, but they’re all great kids who just want to have someone look out for them and talk to them. It’s about being able to go into these spaces and showing these majority black and brown kids that artists can look like them and there’s nothing stopping them from doing what they want to do and exploring those concepts.”

Students from the “Cut, Copy, Paste: Assembling Identity” class will be presenting works with a wide range of influence at the Really Big Show. Some students have focused their projects on their dreams of their future careers as bakers, astronauts, and celebrities, while others have used their work to express what it means to them to be a woman in the modern world, or how important it is to protect our planet.

Through this work, these students have learned that they can express themselves in safe ways that can influence others, and that even when things don’t go to plan, you can always find a new road to get where you want to go.

“The reformative nature of art is what we’re all about,” said Mata. “Giving kids some control at a time in their lives where this might be their only avenue of control. Their art can give them the power of self esteem, and they love it — regardless of the mess-ups and challenges.”

This is what the Art 180 program is all about — showing marginalized kids that they matter and that they can be a positive force in society through creative self expression.

“We start with 4th graders, give them a creative and safe space. And then they can join us in middle school and stick around through high school,” said Garland. “We see them for 10 years. In that way we can officially measure what it means to actually change direction 180 degrees. Even though we see change happen in 10 months, 10 years has a really clear marking point for change.”

“To me, Art 180 means family,” said Glass.

Come out to the streets surrounding the Atlas Gallery at 114 W. Marshall Street this Friday, June 7th, from 4 to 9 PM and experience the heartbeat of Richmond’s creative youth at work, and learn more about Art 180’s amazing work in the community. For more info, click here.

Photos courtesy Art 180

Alicen Hackney

Alicen Hackney

Alicen Hackney is a music journalism student at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg. Her passion is sharing and exploring music and it's cultural ties, and she is always looking for new artists and styles.

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